Concern about the effects of the advance of technology on employment has been a constant since the first Industrial Revolution. In the 1930s, Keynes warned of the dangers of technological unemployment for economies, which he attributed to "our discovery of ways to save the use of labour at a greater rate than we found new uses for it (Economic possibilities for our grandchildren, 1930). Generally, in the past every technological revolution in the medium term has ended creating more jobs than it destroyed. However, such is the socio-economic transformations brought about by robotics and artificial intelligence, that it raises doubts about whether this maxim will be fulfilled now. To what extent are robots going to displace human workers?
At first, the automatons were relegated to the factory environment, as machine tools, engaged in manual work on production lines. The industrial robot is far from the humanoid image that science fiction traditionally gives us -it is more like a mechanical arm or elements on an assembly line- and we would be hard for us to associate it with a smart being. But the field of artificial intelligence has long surpassed the human being in computational power, capacity to store information or to establish relationships between data.
In recent times, factors such as machine learning and the exploitation and use of big data have made many professions susceptible to being taken over by computers, as J. McCormack and d’Inverno (On the Future of Computers and Creativity, 2014): “We know how to build machines that can learn and vary their behaviour through search, optimization, analysis or interaction, allowing them to discover new knowledge or create artefacts that exceed those of their human designers in specific contexts”.
Robots are going to supplant humans
In practice, this implies that many tasks considered "creative" and relegated to being carried out by people, are already able to be done by artificial intelligence. Robots will no longer be limited to monotonous and repetitive jobs in factories, and increasingly they will supplant humans in such things as customer service or giving advice in different fields, to give two specific examples.
The field of artificial intelligence has long surpassed the human being in computational power, capacity to store information or to establish relationships between data
Oxford University researchers Carl Benedikt Frey and Michael A. Osborne reveal in a study (The future of employment, how susceptible are jobs to computerization? 2013) that almost half of the jobs that currently exist in the United States (47%) are at high risk of being automated. For them, high risk means that they will be done by machines in the next decade or the next. Among the threatened professions, the predictive model prepared includes most of the sectors of logistics and transportation as well as those who carry out administrative and administrative tasks. The authors conclude that low-skilled workers will have to convert to tasks that are not automated, that is, requiring skills related to social intelligence and creativity.
Another study, this time published by Nesta in 2015 (Creativity vs. Robots, The Creative Economy and the Future of Employment), agrees that only the creative professions will elude artificial intelligence, since machines do not outperform people in tasks in these areas, and that the final product is not well specified, requires interpretation, and when these are carried out in complex environments. The data provided by the document specifies 21% of US employment as creative. And 24% of that in the United Kingdom, and in these proportions is hardly substitutable by more or less intelligent artefacts.
The science of artificial intelligence is advancing in leaps and bounds. Already among us are consulting systems such as Apple's Siri, Microsoft Cortana and IBM's Watson, to mention the best known. In the field of logistics, we find the robot Kiva that the giant Amazon uses for goods handling in its warehouses (15,000 Kiva robots in 10 company warehouses in the US) and as regards transportation, driverless cars are conspicuous, such as the prototype prepared by Google or the Tesla company’s models.
Is there a last frontier, a limit that artificial intelligence cannot surpass? There is no agreement in this regard between different scientists and technologists who are experts in cybernetics. In fact, there are three different positions on computers’ ability to emulate the human mind, described in the Fundación Telefónica study, "Work in a world of intelligent systems".
Computers will never really have intelligence
First, there are those who defend the concept of strong artificial intelligence for which machines will come up against barriers in the development of their own intelligence. In the end, consciousness and other mental phenomena are equivalent to computational phenomena (neurons behave like zeroes and ones by letting impulses pass or not) and therefore can be perfectly replicated by computers.
Another less optimistic posture, which postulates the principle of weak artificial intelligence, admits that brain processes are susceptible to simulation, but such a simulation is somewhat removed from consciousness (as a rain recreation is somewhat removed from the rain). Although computers will probably be able to execute such simulations, they will never really be intelligent.
Finally, the most sceptical claim that brain processes cannot be simulated by computers. This theory starts from dualism, a thesis that argues that there are two kinds of phenomena in the universe: the physical and the mental. In this case, it is not possible for computers to develop intelligence and not to be able to simulate intelligent processes.
On the effects of the robotic revolution on employment, the aforementioned publication working in a world of intelligent systems also provides a range of perspectives, from the most apocalyptic to less harmful situations for human workers. The authors of the paper define three alternative labour scenarios for the 2030 horizon.
Low-skilled workers will have to convert to tasks that are not automated, that is, requiring skills related to social intelligence and creativity
A more optimistic view of the future predicts that, as in previous times in history, the volume of work that technological change creates is higher than that it destroyed. This thesis is based on the assumptions that technological revolutions create more jobs than those it destroys, that certain tasks can only be carried out by humans and that, in any case, the practical application of technological development is not so rapid and some years have to go by before the complex developments necessary finally end up solving all the possible cases and nuances that may arise.
The pessimistic and devastating view of the transformation of the labour market distinguishes the present time from other periods of previous transformation, stating that, in this case, the jobs destroyed exceed those created by the new technology, mainly because the displacement of workers due to automation is already an ongoing process that will grow over time. Machines are rapidly displacing humans by generating large pockets of unemployment that lead to profound inequality in society.
Finally, the last scenario described is "with a happy ending", a nuanced version of the pessimistic perspective. Despite the job destruction brought about by artificial intelligence, we hope that institutional action and other factors will soften the catastrophic effect of technological change on employment. The reasons for this hope are the belief that social, legal and regulatory structures will minimize the negative impact on employment and that changes will be gradual, allowing public agents to correct social imbalances.
Robots and humans cohabiting in the company is no longer science fiction
These catastrophic forecasts are not shared by all. Professor Ricardo Pérez of the IE Business Review contemplates the massive adoption of technology in the productive system as an opportunity for Europe and Spain (Harvard Deusto Business Review - 263, January 2017). Their arguments are articulated around three economic approaches. On one hand, the technological revolution will reduce the manufacturing cost to such an extent that the production displaced to countries with cheap labour, especially in Asia, will return home. Intelligent machines shift the competitive advantage, from the abundant work based on low wages, to the one that brings vanguard technology. The challenge for the author will be to have all the scientific and technical professional profiles available that will be needed in this scenario.
Ricardo Pérez foresees a new wave of job development associated with the relocation of production in Europe, in this case, focused on the support industry, in charge of manufacturing machine tools and robots, as well as the support staff of the manufacturing activities.
The last factor that is mentioned is the appearance of more competitive companies, in Europe and in Spain. In this case, it speaks of the emergence of technological start-ups, not so focused on the development of apps and services as there are now, rather more orientated to the marketing of things, to the development of physical and real products. The institutional impulse to guarantee the emergence of start-up clusters is decisive in ensuring the creation of an innovative business fabric and the development of high quality jobs.
Robots and humans cohabiting in business, working hand in hand, is no longer the stuff of science fiction. Robots that lead teams of humans will not be uncommon in this technological world that little by little envelops us.
Intelligent machines shift the competitive advantage, from the abundant work based on low wages, to the one that brings vanguard technology
It is not out of place to end this article by recalling a classic story of the fantasy genre, (A Farewell to the Master, 1940), which gave rise to the screenplay of the film Ultimatum to the Earth (Robert Wise, 1951). The story describes the landing in Washington of a spacecraft manned by an alien Klaatu and a powerful robot whose mission is to warn the Earth nations to abandon the aggressive nuclear race if they do not want the more advanced civilizations of the cosmos to put an end to the threat that they pose for peace. After numerous vicissitudes, the alien Klaatu is mortally wounded by violent humans and transferred to the ship by the robot. The protagonist of the story, Cliff Sutherland, goes to the robot before he leaves for his own planet and asks him to convey to their master that everything has been an accident, not to be taken into account. The answer of the android Gnut (in the film was called Gort) leaves to him frozen to the spot: "You have not understood, I am the gentleman". It was a civilization so advanced that it left the absolute command of the missions to the machines. Will the day come when we have got robot bosses?